Jill Fox admits it: she tuned out of politics for a while.
Barack Obama was in the White House and she agreed with much of what the Democrat did while he was there. But that all changed when Republican Donald Trump won the race to replace Obama as president.
Fox — who was stunned that Hillary Clinton didn’t win — said she felt an immediate need to do something.
She started attending local meetings for Democrats, volunteering with groups such as Planned Parenthood and getting involved with the Texas Equal Access Fund. And she joined in last month’s Women’s March.
“I got involved in civic organizations I should have always been involved in,” said the 36-year-old Fort Worth HR and legal administrator for a real estate investment firm. “If there’s a silver lining to the election of this president, it’s that a lot of people who have a lot to give are finally motivated to do it.
“I just wish it hadn’t happened this way.”
Fox is among those who, for years, have focused on their jobs, family and friends. Now, instead of complaining about who is running the government, they want to do something about it.
They are protesting, joining Democratic groups and contacting members of Congress to weigh in on issues such as appointments to Trump’s Cabinet. Some are considering taking it a big step forward and possibly running for office themselves.
They call it the Trump effect.
“There’s absolutely a reaction to Trump actually becoming president by people who have not been involved in politics before,” said Jason Smith, a longtime Fort Worth Democrat who recently hosted a reception for Progress Texas. “Last fall, when we had phone banks, we were lucky if we could get half a dozen people there.
“Now we are having to accommodate for unexpectedly large crowds.”
The question now is whether this new effort is a brief moment of activism — or whether it can be sustained.
“These are the significant questions,” said Jim Riddlesperger, a political science professor at Texas Christian University. “And questions for which there are no easy answers.
“In order for the Democrats to be successful, they will have to make a transition from one-time demonstrations to sustained organization, fund-raising, and strategic planning. Those things are easier said than done.”
When Obama became president in 2009, Republicans were frustrated with how government was being run.
Many began attending grassroots events for the so-called Tea Party, protesting the stimulus package and various government bailouts. The events started small, then began growing, at times drawing thousands of frustrated taxpayers locally and more across the country.
Then-Gov. Rick Perry, a Democrat-turned-Republican, even rallied the crowd at some Tea Party events, saying Texans were sending a message to leaders in Washington, D.C.
“We will not stand for our pockets being picked,” he said during a 2009 rally at La Grave Field in Fort Worth. “We are part of a movement that is growing. … We will not be ignored.”
The Tea Party movement did grow through the years and sustained itself so much that when some candidates such as Texan Ted Cruz were put into office, credit was given to the swelling political effort — which remains a credible force.
Tarrant County Democratic Party Chair Deborah Peoples said she sees similarities between the beginning of the Tea Party and the Democratic movement now underway: they both began at the grassroots level.
Case in point: the women’s march started with women who wanted to make a point, and many others joined the effort. Then citizens across the country began flocking to airports to protest travel bans put in place by Trump. And then people began holding phone banks, trying to organize opposition to various Trump appointments and actions.
This kind of activism is something we haven’t ever seen. Tarrant County Democratic Party Chair Deborah Peoples
“This kind of activism is something we haven’t ever seen,” Peoples said. “It bubbled from the ground up. … We know we need to capture and channel this kind of activism. … The 2018 election is just around the corner.”
Some Republicans disagree, saying the Tea Party effort and current involvement of Democrats isn’t the same at all.
“There was a growing disconnect between politicians and people that had been festering for far longer than when Obama took office,” said Tim O’Hare, who heads the Tarrant County Republican Party. “There were conservative Republicans who were sick of normal Republicans and even some conservative Republicans. That was brewing.
“Then when Obama took over, it threw it over the edge,” he said. “Also, the Tea Party was a response to being sick of the media and the narrative the media pushes.”
‘Nature of politics’
O’Hare said the current activism by Democrats was to be expected.
“This is the nature of politics. When your side loses, and the other side starts doing things you don’t like, you step up,” he said. “In many ways, a lot of the things Trump has done has been a complete total turnabout of what Obama did.
“After eight years of being soft on immigration, viewing the United States as just another country as opposed to the leader of the free world and having an attitude of ‘regulate, regulate, tax, tax, spend spend,’ … Trump is the polar opposite,” O’Hare said. “And some people are coming unglued.”
O’Hare said people should just wait and see what Trump will do in office. He believes in a few years, as more jobs are created in America, the president will win over some Democrats.
“It’s pretty absurd some of the things going on — riots of speakers, burning cars,” he said. “What in the world are we coming to? The Democrats are being taken over by the far left fringe and I think it’s going to backfire. I think more people will look at our side as the party of choice.”
He said he has seen a growing interest in the local Republican Party chapter during the past year. For instance, he said, the party’s Facebook page had about 2,100 “likes” last June. Now there are more than 9,000.
I think the left pushed it too far. I don’t think they learned anything from the election ... and you’ll see more Legislatures turn red. Tarrant County Republican Party Chair Tim O’Hare
“I think the left pushed it too far,” O’Hare said. “I don’t think they learned anything from the election … and you’ll see more legislatures turn red.”
Democrats say they’ve seen a spike in interest in local groups.
In fact, Peoples said, sustaining memberships in the Tarrant County Democratic Party grew nearly 40 percent in January. And the party will hold a membership drive, Rise Up Tarrant County!, at 6 p.m. March 2 at Chimarra Brewing Company, 1001 W. Magnolia Ave. in Fort Worth.
Some groups, such as Southwest Tarrant County Democrats, have seen overflow crowds at meetings this year. Other groups — such as the Tarrant County Democratic Womans Club — have seen an increase in paid memberships.
Leah Payne, president of the women’s club, said her group has been flooded with interest since right before the presidential inauguration.
At the end of 2016, the group had 146 paid members. This month, there are 450 paid members.
“We have a lot of people who are very angry,” said Payne, an active Democratic protester at various GOP events. “And we have a lot of people who are worried for their children and grandchildren about the hateful rhetoric that is coming out of the White House.
“I think we finally have the awakening we needed to make change happen,” she said. “If we do what needs to be done locally — and keep the momentum going — I think we will be able to keep this fight going. People now know what happens when you stay home and become silent.”
Celia Morgan, president of Texas Young Democrats, said more than 200 people signed up for her group’s email list in recent weeks. Beyond that, she receives at least a dozen messages or emails a week from people wanting to find or start a local chapter — and the group’s social media presence has grown by thousands.
“I’ve heard everything from concern about the White House administration and Trump’s policies, to concern about local policies,” she said. “The first two weeks of the Trump administration sent us into a frenzy of unconstitutional executive orders. To cap that off, [with] the start of the Texas Legislative Session, the GOP has come out swinging, doubling down on Trump’s agenda here at home.”
She said she hopes to see interest in efforts to boost the involvement of Democrats locally and across the country.
“The political process isn’t just cyclical — it is a fulltime, year round gig,” Morgan said. “Between elections there is legislation, and sprinkled in are local board and bond races. Connecting people to the issues that really affect them, and then showing them how to affect the process, is the key to making momentum a movement.”
‘I needed to do something’
Some Democrats say it’s easy to feel alone in GOP strongholds, particularly Texas, which hasn’t seen a Democrat elected to statewide office since 1994, and Tarrant County, one of the reddest areas of the state.
“You don’t realize, especially in Tarrant County, that there are people who think the same way,” said Nicole Graham, a mother and a librarian with the Fort Worth school district.
Graham, who was involved with a Democratic club in college, didn’t stay politically active after graduation. She always voted, but she focused on her family.
Then she was stunned when Trump won the presidency.
“Once the moment of shock was over, I realized I have to do something,” the 33-year-old said. “I looked for a local Democrats group.”
She got involved with the local Democratic Womans Club, agreeing to chair the group’s scholarship committee. She marched in last month’s women’s march and attended a local leader training session put on by Annie’s List, a group that works to elect progressive women to office in Texas, to learn more about the political process.
And she just finished applying to be a volunteer deputy registrar in the May election.
“After the election, I thought, ‘I can’t sit here and be sad because that doesn’t help anybody.’ It’s OK to be sad, but that emotion has to go somewhere else,” Graham said. “I needed to do something.”
‘A deeper level’
Antje Crawford did as much as she could to help Hillary Clinton in the presidential election.
Crawford, born and raised in Germany, lived in the United States for nearly 20 years but didn’t become a U.S. citizen until 2015. Part of the reason she moved forward with citizenship that year was so she could vote in the 2016 presidential election.
“I felt very strongly about Hillary Clinton being in the race and I wanted to vote for her,” said Crawford, 40, of Fort Worth.
When Trump won, she said she couldn’t believe the news.
Crawford had already joined a local Democratic Womans Club, but after the election, she felt she needed to do more.
She has signed up to be a Democratic precinct chair in the May election, attended a training seminar teaching people how to run for office and will look for other ways to be involved in politics and encourage others to participate as well.
“All the marches are great, but there’s a deeper level that needs to happen,” Crawford said. “It’s not about rebelling and rioting. It’s about being vigilant and being informed and pushing back.
“The more people speak up, the stronger our voice becomes,” she said. “I want to be more informed. I want to step up. I want to be able to voice my opinion and make a difference. I definitely feel like I need to do something.”